I have been a professional television editor for about 7 years. I started editing in high school, cutting short films I made with my friends. As a film student at USC, I didn't actually receive much formal instruction in regards to editing, but I was constantly cutting something, learning by osmosis. My first paid editing gig was at a non-profit called Invisible Children that produces a lot of documentary films, most famously KONY 2012. I got the job because I went to film school with two of the founders, and I learned a lot about storytelling while working with their uber-talented media team.
In 2008, I got my first reality television editing job as an overnight assistant editor position on an eminently forgettable program called Split Ends - think Wife Swap but with hair salons. I got that job because I knew the Post Coordinator and lied about how much experience I had with Avid Media Composer.
The old adage is true: Fake it till you make it.
Assistant editor work isn’t especially difficult, and I learned quickly. After several more assistant jobs, I made the jump to editor on a low-rent Nickelodeon game show. In the years since, I have worked on dozens of TV shows, such as Top Chef, Masterchef, and Top Chef Masters - basically, if you put the words "Chef," "Top," and "Master" in some order, I’ve edited at least a season of it. Currently, I am cutting the 4th season of MTV’s #1 show, Catfish. And in between all these TV shows, I’ve edited an assortment of non-profit docs, TV pilots, "sizzle reels," and a number of short films, some of which I directed.
Could you give us an overview of what a video editor does?
In the most basic sense, editors take all the raw footage from the field, sort through it, find the best material, and then put it all together into a cohesive story. In reality television, it’s not uncommon for crews to roll 5 or 6 cameras simultaneously, sometimes for hours and hours at at time, so sorting through the footage becomes a herculean task. Fortunately, I have a lot of people helping me do that - transcribers, assistant editors, story assistants, and story producers - and I usually only have to watch a small fraction of the material.
As an editor is putting together a cut, she has to make big-picture decisions about story structure, plot, and character development while simultaneously making thousands and thousands of tiny decisions. Often the work comes down to things like bumping a shot 2 frames earlier or rolling a sound effect 6 frames later. It can be very tedious.
We start with "stringouts" (very basic assemblies of scenes) that our story producers have created. Then we turn those into "radio cuts" (focusing on the dialogue), and then put together several rough cuts, polish it into a serious of fine cuts, and, at the very end, after everything has been tweaked a hundred different ways, we get to "picture lock," and the edit is finished. After "picture lock," the episode goes off to "Online," where it gets "uprezed" and color corrected, while a sound mixer makes it all sound nice. A typical job of mine lasts 3 or 4 months, and in that time I will probably work on 5 or 6 episodes.
How does someone become a video editor?
Becoming a video editor is actually, in my estimation, a pretty realistic goal. In fact, I know an editor who self-published a book on Amazon titled something like, "Reality TV Editing: The Easy to Get, High-Paying Job No One Knows About." He’s not wrong!
Although I went to film school, many of my colleagues did not. If you can teach yourself how to edit at home (and there are plenty of resources to help you), you can probably find people willing to pay you a little bit of money to edit a video or two, and you can certainly find people who’ll ask you to work for free in exchange for credit. If you then manage to put together a bit of a resume, you should be able to talk your way into a production assistant job somewhere. At that point, if you are diligent and keep learning, you can eventually become an assistant editor. Finally, if you bide your time and don’t seem crazy, someone will offer you a chance to become an editor. At that point, your career really depends on your network of former colleagues and supervisors, and if you are friendly and competent, eventually you’ll stop having to look for work altogether, because it will come to you.
What is the pay like?
I know it’s not polite to talk about money, but I think it is actually beneficial for freelancers to share salary information with each other, because the companies that hire us certainly won’t be eager to show us their cards, and you can easily find yourself in a situation where you are making significantly less than your colleagues because you didn’t know what to ask for. It happened to me a few times early in my career.
So, as a public service, I’m gonna play the whistleblower and share the following super-secret Hollywood insider information:
As a production assistant in Hollywood, you should be making at least $500/wk. Assistant editors, $1000-1500. For editors, $2000 is considered a bargain basement weekly salary. I currently make $3500/wk, or approximately $120-150,000 per year (depending on how many weeks a year I work). In the next year or so, I am hoping to bump my rate to an even $4000/wk, which is not unreasonable for someone with my experience.
In short, that guy with the Amazon book was right, it is high-paying job. I’m thankful for that.
What are the best parts of being a video editor?
My favorite things about my career are (in no particular order) :
- I get to be creative for a living
- I get paid well to do it
- I have assistants to help with the grunt work
- I generally work fairly reasonable hours (typically 10am - 7pm)
What are the biggest challenges in being a video editor?
I’m a social, collaborative person, so the biggest challenge for me is that I spend most of my time alone in an edit bay. The uneven nature of being a freelancer can also be a challenge. You have to budget wisely, because you are constantly jumping from job to job, and you’ll often end up with gaps between.
I’ll also put in a word of caution about the future of the industry: Production companies are increasingly looking outside of New York and LA for editors, and outsourcing post-production to places like Austin and Nashville. That’s great if you happen to live in those (very awesome) towns. But the outsourcing won’t stop there. I wouldn’t be surprised if editors begin to suffer the same plight as visual effects artists: work outsourced overseas, profit margins squeezed, companies going bankrupt. There will always be a market for top-quality editors, but, on the low end, pretty soon you’ll be competing with Chinese editors with fast internet connections.
Any other helpful resources or links on this topic?
I would recommend that anyone who wants to be an editor learn Avid Media Composer. Although it seems like a dinosaur, it’s still the dominant player in Hollywood. You can download a demo at home, or pay $50/month for a license.